Happy Birthday Dear Valium…

Besides President Kennedy’s assassination, the grim anniversary we mark the 22nd of this month, did you know that Valium turned 50 in November? Feeling blue, due to “excessive psychic tension?” Pop 10 milligrams of the pill with the cut-out V that resembles a heart, cause it got to the heart of your anxiety/depression no doubt!

Feeling blue?

Feeling blue?

In marking the big 50, The Wall Street Journal noted that “Valium’s success sprang in part from an aggressive marketing campaign. One 1970 ad titled ‘Mrs Raymond’s pupils do a double-take’ featured a fictional middle-aged teacher debilitated by ‘excessive psychic tension and associated depressive symptoms accompanying her menopause.’ Thanks to Valium, however, Mrs. R was once again ‘trim and smartly dressed, the way she was when school began.’
Another 1970 ad portrayed Jan (’35, single and psychoneurotic’), whose low self-esteem prevented her from finding a man ‘to measure up to her father.’ A series of snapshots span 15 years of Jan’s failed relationships, culminating in a picture of a matronly woman standing alone on a cruise ship – the fate from which Valium might have saved her.”
Oy. Some thoughts…I’d like to know how many of us were “smartly dressed” in the Seventies, for me one of fashion’s ugliest decades. Like 35 is over-the-hill? Let’s hear a little more about dear, old dad. Just what kind of a paragon was he? And about those failed relationships, maybe some of those guys were dogs, losers or finks! As for the cruise, think of all the reading you could do. I know, that was then, this is now.
Back then Valium was all over the cultural landscape. I don’t remember much about the 1979 movie Starting Over, except for that scene about the Burt Reynold’s character having a panic attack in the furniture department of Bloomingdale’s (That floor and B’s cosmetics department can still make even the most stoic of us hyperventilate). “Does anyone have a Valium?” his brother called out as Burt lurched into full panic mode. The punch line: Every woman within shouting distance reached into her purse and pulled out a little vial of Vs. Interesting: He’s having the panic attack, but she’s got the goods to fix it.
The Journal article goes on to say that today, showing its versatility, Valium is used to treat muscle spasms, irritable bowel syndrome, night terrors and – natch – panic disorder. Who knew.

But Words Will Never Hurt Me

Depends what the words are and who’s uttering them. Or in the case of Jessica Mitford’s governess, “hissing” them. Jessica, the author, journalist and civil rights activist, was one of the famous Mitford Sisters whose upper crust British childhood included governess caretakers. My good pal Andrew recently emailed me “On Keeping a Notebook,” the Joan Didion essay written in the Sixties. Didion tells us that she copied down the following in one of her many notebooks: ” ‘You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it,’ Jessica Mitford’s governess would hiss in her ear on the advent of any social occasion.” Gee, what an uplifting message to send.

The Governess Years - Jessica Mitford, around 4-years-old

The Governess Years – Jessica Mitford, around 4-years-old


We’re talking Dickensian here, not the early 20th century when Jessica frolicked as a tiny tyke. Judging from her accomplishments, literary and otherwise, she thrived as an adult and did not suffer any symptoms of the Doormat Syndrome. “I copied that into my notebook because it is only recently that I have been able to enter a room without hearing some such phrase in my inner ear,” Didion writes. Oh, how I can relate. When covering parties for Women’s Wear Daily over a number of years I never quite lost that “they’re-much-more-important-than-me” thing.
But I’ve moved on, as a quote on my bulletin board will attest. It’s from the late political columnist Mary McGrory who once advised her nephew Brian at a hoity-toity Washington party: “Always approach the shrimp bowl like you own it.” Is there any other way, I ask?
Own it!

Own it!

Attention Must be Paid!

Who would think that just across the street from our abode I would be treated to a series of exceptional educational evenings courtesy of the Vineyard Haven Public Library. That’s where the William Faulkner scholar Phillip Weinstein is enlightening a packed house about two of Faulkner’s key works: “The Sound and the Fury” (no easy read!) and “Light in August.”

"The Sound and the Fury" with my Compson family tree notes to help me keep that dysfunctional clan straight!

“The Sound and the Fury” with my Compson family tree notes to help me keep that dysfunctional clan straight!


A big thanks to Betty Burton, who heads up the library’s adult programs, and Phil, a seasonal Vineyard resident and English Professor at Swarthmore College. Oh, he’s also the author of “Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner,” former head of the William Faulkner Society and has published papers including “Faulkner’s Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns” and “What Else But Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison.” He knows of what he speaks! At Swarthmore, his courses have included: “Faulkner, Morrison, and the Representation of Race” and “The Subject in Question.” That offering is described as follows..

How do we become who we are? What social discourses and practices enable the shaping of identity? How does reading affect this process? This course will explore the ways in which subjectivity and ideology interpenetrate within a range of texts and our commentary upon them. Writers will include Shakespeare, Flaubert, Kafka, Faulkner, Rich, Morrison, and DeLillo. Theoretical essays may also be assigned.

Isn’t any humanities course that addresses a question like “How do we become who we are?” a must for young adults?! Recently, The New York Times ran a page one story that caught my attention: “Interest Fading in Humanities, Colleges Worry.” Yikes! That is worrisome. Not surprisingly, the fear is that the humanities are loosing favor to STEM offerings. Not being a STEM herd, the acronym was new to me. It’s the term for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. No wonder. Whenever possible, I avoided the STEM Gang like the plague in any of my past centers of higher learning.

The article points out that “while humanities majors often have trouble landing their first job, their professors say that over the long term, employers highly value their critical thinking skills.” I mean who would you rather sit next to at dinner, a STEM nerd or Phil Weinstein!

But this is no laughing matter. Look at the definition of humanities on the Stanford University website to see the importance of how the subjects clustered under the heading of humanities such as English or history can shape an aware global citizen:

The humanities can be described as the study of the myriad ways in which people, from every period of history and from every corner of the globe, process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella. Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries.

Don’t we have to better “understand our world” to make it a better one…albeit with the help of technology in getting the message across, for example, via social media?

As Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, noted in The Times article, “Many do not understand that the study of humanities offers skills that will help them sort out values, conflicting issues and fundamental philosophical questions.”

At Stanford, the history department’s courses “teach the foundational knowledge and skills (analytical, interpretive, writing) necessary for understanding the deep connections between past and present.” Outmoded thinking, not applicable to solving today’s conflicts around the world? Hardly!

Alas, Stanford is out of reach for me – geographically and academically. But I’ve got the little library that could and does help me understand the world in which we live.

The Vineyard Haven Public Library, a stone's throw from our house. Lucky me.

The Vineyard Haven Public Library, a stone’s throw from our house. Lucky me.

Dark Victory

I'm up with the sun, actually before it heads up over the horizon

I’m up with the sun, actually before it heads up over the horizon

All you late risers excited about your extra hour of sleep tomorrow morning when we return to my favorite, Eastern Standard Time? “It gets dark so early,” everybody moans come November. Not me. When the sun’s on its way down, quittin’ time comes earlier. Not that I’m hoeing some field, but when you’re keeping farmer’s hours, as in up before the sun, those darkened afternoons are mighty welcome. They give me permission to put my feet up without feeling guilty. Needless to say, I fade early. Any TV show with a start time of 10 p.m. is a sure candidate for DVRing.

I’ve been a morning/day person all my life so that makes me a veteran early chronotype, or unique circadian rhythm. And guess what? One study in Chronobiology revealed that night owls are prone to depression more than early bird chronotypes. But, according to some researchers, the summertime clock typically disrupts sleep for all chronotypes. No kidding. Nobody, even a pre-dawn regular like myself, wants to rise and shine at 4:30 a.m. when day breaks around here in June. Groan.

Quittin' Time as the sun goes down

Quittin’ Time as the sun goes down